Finding meaning in the sound of silence

I talk a lot and I can’t deny it. I was one of those babies who didn’t say anything until the age of two, but once I uttered my first word (which my mother swears was “beet”), I never stopped. This was a huge source of embarrassment for me in elementary school when I would sheepishly hand over my report card filled with comments like: “needs to refrain from excessive talking” and “distracts others with continual chatter.”

Since grade school I have tried harder than most to curb my enthusiastic mouth. Sometimes I succeed but more often than not, I resort to little tricks like counting to 30 before I speak or using meditative mantras like “silence is the path to serenity.” Once I even went so far as to attend a retreat where we spent the better part of two days in total silence. At first, it almost killed me, so I kept swallowing loudly and whispering to myself. But after a while, I actually began to enjoy the act of not speaking. It opened my eyes, ears and heart to the sounds of the world around me that are otherwise lost in the chatter and noise of daily living.

One of the hallmarks of modern times is noise. The never-ending sounds of traffic and construction, the ringing and music from cell phones, radios and televisions, the incessant conversations in restaurants, offices and social gatherings, are indicative of our need to live out loud. Sadly, for many of us, silence has become all but extinct —the dinosaur of modern life.

Judaism has much to teach us about the idea of silence. At the heart of Jewish tradition is the statement of faith found in the Shema, which means “listen” or “hear.” The opening line of the Shema is translated as: “Hear! Israel, the Lord our God is One.” Only when we are quiet enough to listen, when we become silent within ourselves so that we can hear the wisdom within and around us, can we really understand the essence of the divine.

Silence offers us many opportunities to live with greater purpose, awareness and intention. When we minimize our need to respond verbally to the external world, we increase our ability to reflect meaningfully on our internal world. When we refrain from automatically responding, we make room for possibilities that might not otherwise emerge; insights and understanding about life, people and ourselves, that words and witticisms can distract us from comprehending.

Judaism views the ability to speak as the ultimate gift to humans. Speech separates us from other forms of life and enables us to fulfill God’s mission to be holy. But speech was given to us to be used purposefully, and only by balancing our speech with the ability to embrace silence do we gain wisdom.

A wonderful reminder of our need for silence in the weekly holiday of Shabbat. Shabbat is intended to help us turn down the volume of the world by freeing us from the din and chatter of electronics, traffic and the sounds of the work place. It can become the one day of the week when we intentionally seek silence as a means of restoring ourselves. Just as the body needs rest in order to be healthy, the soul needs silence in order to grow. As the Talmud says:”There is no better medicine than silence.”

Jewish sages valued silence as vital to living a meaningful life. This is beautifully described by Rabbi Gamliel who said: “All of my life I was privileged to be in the company of the wise men of Torah and I learned from them that nothing is more valuable to productive living than silence.”

And with that in mind, I have nothing more to say.

Amy Hirshberg Lederman is an author, Jewish educator, public speaker and attorney who lives in Tucson. Her columns in the AJP have won awards from the American Jewish Press Association, the Arizona Newspapers Association and the Arizona Press Club for excellence in commentary. Visit her website at